Fri, Nov 10, 2006 - Page 17 News List

A mediocre good year

When an irascible Englishman inherits a vineyard in Provence, he plans to sell up and cash in, but love has different intentions

By Steve Persall and Wesley Morris  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BOSTON AND ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA

Russell Crowe needed a vacation after reaching out and touching someone with a telephone got him arrested for assault. What better place to rehab your temper than the peaceful splendor of France's wine country?

Might as well make a film while you're there.

A Good Year is a lighter choice than usual for the rugged actor and for Ridley Scott, who directed Crowe to an Oscar in Gladiator. A change of scenery suits them well.

Yet they still bring a roguish flavor to the romantic comedy sentiments established by Peter Mayle's novel. This is a chick flick for dudes, too.

Crowe plays Max Skinner, a London stock trader who risks investigation for manipulating prices to earn a fortune. Max gloats, then returns home to news that his beloved uncle Henry (Albert Finney in flashbacks) has died.

Max was last happy as a child on a summer visit to Henry's vineyard and chateau. Scott begins A Good Year with an excellent sequence between Finney and Freddy Highmore (Finding Neverland) as young Max. We immediately learn the intimate appeal of winemaking and its parallels to human nature. We also get the lay of the gorgeous land and Henry's romantically decaying home.

As Henry's only known survivor, Max inherits the place. He plans to sell it and his memories for a handsome sum.

That doesn't sit well with Francis Duflot (Didier Bourdon), the vineyard's longtime caretaker and practically Henry's son. Word of an impending deal quickly spreads to the village, where Henry was a local celebrity. Sultry bistro server Fanny Chenal (the ravishing Marion Cotillard) is the most irritated, but she still enchants Max.

Then it gets more complicated with the arrival of Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), an American who also intrigues Max until she informs him that Henry was her biological father. Henry's spirit and Fanny's spunk already had Max reconsidering the sale. Now he may not get the girl or the grapes.

Film Notes:

A Good YearDirected by: Ridley ScottStarring: Freddie Highmore (Young Max), Albert Finney (Uncle Henry), Russell Crowe (Max Skinner), Rafe Spall (Kenny), Archie Panjabi (Gemma), Richard Coyle (Amis)Running Time: 118 minutes Taiwan Release: Today


Crowe easily handles Max's caustic moments with a smarmy jaunt. He has good reason to soften in France, where screenwriter Marc Klein gives Francis and Fanny withering lines of provincial wisdom to put Max in his place. Christie is almost one too many ingredients. The arrival of Max's lawyer (Rafe Spall) as another love interest certainly is.

A Good Year runs about a month too long, but it's tough to leave such a lovely place. Scott blends the don't-rush-past-love appeal of Jerry Maguire with the continental air of Under the Tuscan Sun for a robustly romantic diversion. And not once does Crowe stomp on the grapes.

For the premiere Crowe had taken a break from shooting American Gangster, a 1970s crime epic in which he stars as a detective turned prosecutor and Denzel Washington plays a Harlem heroin lord. Crowe appeared to bring that production's energy with him up to Canada, and he seemed eager to get back to the set.

What drew him to both American Gangster and A Good Year was the movies' maker, Ridley Scott, who directed him in 2000's Gladiator. They had tried to work together since that film, but their schedules never harmonized. "We ended up doing things with other people that we would have preferred to do together," Crowe said. But timing wasn't the only problem.

There was the nagging pressure of expectation. Crowe said he and Scott would visit studios to pitch a second film together, and the executives would get nervous about besting the success of Gladiator, which made piles of money and won four Oscars, including best picture and best actor for Crowe. But Crowe found the hemming and hawing ridiculous.

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